Skip to main content

We’ll bring it out on March 25 and we’ll call it… Christmas II!

Santa Claus: The Movie
(1985)

(SPOILERS) Alexander Salkind (alongside son Ilya) inhabited not dissimilar territory to the more prolific Dino De Laurentis, in that his idea of manufacturing a huge blockbuster appeared to be throwing money at it while being stingy with, or failing to appreciate, talent where it counted. Failing to understand the essential ingredients for a quality movie, basically, something various Hollywood moguls of the ‘80s would inherit. Santa Claus: The Movie arrived in the wake of his previously colon-ed big hit, Superman: The Movie, the producer apparently operating under the delusion that flying effects and :The Movie in the title would induce audiences to part with their cash, as if they awarded Saint Nick a must-see superhero mantle. The only surprise was that his final cinematic effort, Christopher Columbus: The Discovery, wasn’t similarly sold, but maybe he’d learned his lesson by then. Or maybe not, given the behind-camera talent he failed to secure.


The most startling nugget concerning Santa Claus, besides the very telling Wikipedia entry noting [citation needed] against the claim “it has since gained a cult following and become one of the most watched Christmas movies of all time” (yeah, right) is that John Carpenter’s services were once in serious contention. At first glance, the idea simply does not compute. Carpenter, the horror titan, making a most Christmassy of movies? Even given that he wanted input into the screenplay, score, and final cut (and $5m, and Brian Dennehy as Santa). Then one considers that his last picture had been the entirely atypical romance Starman, and that he produced the ill-fated attempt to spin his most famed title into a series of anthology sequels (Halloween III: The Season of the Witch).


After all, that movie also takes place at a famous calendar date, also features a toy manufacturer planning to make a massive impact on said date, and both even feature deadly consequences associated with their product (albeit, in Santa Claus’ case, it’s an unfortunate side effect). It was actually Starman that got Salkind interested, though, evidence of a softer, more family-friendly side to the director. I’d be surprised if the main bone of contention wasn’t ultimately the money. While he was very fond of throwing actors ridiculous amounts to get a headliner, he was none-too picky with his directors.


Richard Donner was his most notable, and they had serious disagreements. Richard Lester was just very agreeable, hence being brought on to finish Superman II. The producer had a curious persuasion towards Bond directors, probably because Cubby Broccoli had a similar lack of interest in visionaries who might eclipse himself as producer (Guy Hamilton and Lewis Gilbert were potentials, John Glen eventually directed The Discovery). Robert Wise was the most illustrious name considered and that was probably more down to Star Trek: The Motion Picture (the title is very nearly Star Trek: The Movie so probably attracted Salkind’s attention for that alone) than anything else in his filmography. That Salkind ended up with Jeannot Szwarc, more prolific on TV than in movies and the B-list helmer of Jaws 2 and calling the shots on the producer’s then-current production Supergirl, says it all. Both Supergirl and Santa Clause look cheap, tacky and artistically bereft, despite the cash thrown at them.


As with most Salkind projects, there was a long wish list of potential stars who were never going to come on board, although it appears cuddly Dudley was always a fixture. And this wasn’t necessarily a bad premise; a movie focussing on Santa’s not-so-little helper genuinely did become a Christmas favourite nearly two decades later. These days, a name actor appearing in a Christmas movie is often a sign they’re desperate (Tim Allen, Vince Vaughn) or looking for a quick hit (Bill Murray). A few years before, Moore had become an unlikely superstar off the back of dual hits 10 and Arthur; Salkind should have seen as, as should the bankrollers of Arthur 2: On the Rocks, that Moore’s Hollywood star had ascended fleetingly, however (Dudley did still have the good grace to suggest his old comedy buddy and sometime jealous sparring partner Peter Cook for Supergirl, which if nothing else, means there are some distractingly offbeat scenes in the picture). He doesn’t even have a part to bring anything to here, and the extent of the “comedy” appears to be Patch (his character) punning on words and phrases with “self” in them as “elf” (doing similarly with “Vendequm”, the actual name of the elvish people, would have been a stretch). Moore’s a likeable presence, but even that begins to be tested here.


As for the title character, the role eventually went to the big Lebowski himself. Not Jeff, but David Huddleston, who was much more effective ranting at the Dude more than a decade later than attempting to twinkle and bestow beaming beneficence on all and sundry here (excepting an alarmingly selfish – elfish – predilection for becoming dispirited and sulking at the prospect that someone other than he might be bringing children happiness when Patch’s presents become a big hit). There’s something a bit off about Huddleston’s Claus, particularly when he abducts a couple of kids to his North Pole pad for a year. On the other hand, Judy Cornwell is a suitably mumsy Mrs (Anya) Claus.


B.Z.: Are you from the Federal Trade Commission?
Patch: No, I’m from the North Pole.

We should just be grateful Salkind had to settle on C-lister John Lithgow for B.Z., as he’s the solitary element that goes some way towards salvaging Santa Claus (although, we have to wait an eternity for him to actually show up). Names such as Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Harrison Ford and Burt Reynolds were mooted, regardless of their suitability, before it went to Lithgow, who had recently showed just how unhinged he could be in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. His performance here isn’t on that level, but it’s still the perfect antidote to the sickly sentiment and insipid goodwill sprawled across the rest of the movie.


Patch: Don’t you believe in Santa Claus?
B.Z.: Why should I? He never brought me anything.
Patch: That’s probably because you were a naughty boy.
B.Z.: Yes, I guess I was no angel.

When we first see him, unrepentant toy manufacturer B.Z. is being prosecuted for selling flammable dolls. Patch drops in on him, his attempts at automating production of the North Pole’s frankly barrel-scraping toys having gone down like a lead balloon when they start falling apart (“Returns? We’ve never had returns!”) Lithgow’s a delight in his gleeful embrace of avarice, even turning Patch’s giveaway (fairy dust coated puce candy that causes the consumer to float) into a business opportunity (“All that good PR”: not a million miles away from the attitude struck by Macy in Miracle on 34th Street).


B.Z.: We’ll bring it out on March 25 and we’ll call it… Christmas II!

If the entire movie had been focussed on B.Z., we might have been onto something. As it is, there’s no arc for Patch, who simply decides he wants to return to the North Pole (no conversation or contrition precedes this) and is persuaded to “juice up the formula” for his farewell creation, candy canes that are discovered to “react to extreme heat and turn volatile”. At least B.Z.’s reaction to this news is characteristically fiendish; he’s not to blame “if these people are so reckless as to have radiators in their houses” and would have fled to Brazil were it not for the arrival of the Plod, and a candy cane sending him into orbit (I might suggest the climax, in which Patch is rescued by Santa, is rushed and garbled, but it’s still far preferable to the torturous first hour).


Santa Claus: Wanna go for a ride?

The other element of the movie that’s sure to make you baulk is the frickin’ kids. For some reason, B.Z. isn’t horribly mean to niece Cornelia (Carrie Kei Heim), despite her being a toothless brat straight out of a Dickens parody. Even worse is Joe (Christian Fitzpatrick), a streetwise street urchin sporting a leather jacket newly bought by costuming, who just needs the kindness of Santa to make it all alright. It’s a miracle – the miracle of Christmas? – he doesn’t laugh derisively when Santa presents him with a hand carved Patch figurine as a present. He should have thrown it at him. Fortunately, to maintain some balance, we are offered evidence the true meaning of Christmas, as Joe tucks into a McDonald’s cheeseburger and a Coke, universally acknowledged symbols of contentment and sugary bliss. And succumbing to heart disease and tooth rot.


Patch: I’m entirely elf-taught.

Santa Claus leaves a few questions outstanding, such as: why are all the elves at the North Pole male? What is their magic elixir (“Both of you will live forever. Like us” Claus and Anya are informed), and why would anyone want to spend eternity with Burgess Meredith, Melvyn Hayes and Christopher Ryan making tacky toys? Do the reindeer get flogged to near death on their Christmas Eve journey, or is that fairy dust like speed (“Time travels with you” Santa is told, but what about the poor deers)? As for Santa’s decision to make a list of naughty and nice children, it’s a prime example of sanctioned eavesdropping on a Big Brother scale.


Patch: It gives me a real feeling of elf-confidence.

Unsurprisingly, since Superman only eventually got lucky making us believe a man can fly after many botched tests, the effects in Santa Claus are frequently crummy. There is some flat out dreadful green screen, of a standard that would even have looked cheap in an episode of Doctor Who at the time. Dudley’s space sled is meant to look daft, so I guess it fulfils that remit. To be charitable, the fairy dust effect under Santa’s sled is okay, and the animatronic reindeer are quite endearing; Donner gets a big laugh (which makes one more than Moore) with a POV shot of his vertiginous response to their first flight. And is that the sound effect from The Man in the White Suit when Patch is making his candy?


BZ: Do you ever have one of those nights when you just want to drop a bomb on the whole world?

Santa Claus: The Movie is reputed to have cost $50m. It made about half that, opening against Rocky IV (which opened to four times the take of its nearest competitor) in a December landscape that was something of a wilderness (Back to the Future was still in the Top 10 after 22 weeks, and the previous week’s number one had been King Solomon’s Mines, scarcely believably).  Apparently – this is plain confounding – TriStar executives, who released the movie, believed Supergirl was a masterpiece and would become a megahit, so the mind boggles at the delusions they must have nursed over Santa Claus. Outside of Lithgow’s venerable presence, the picture is a descent into the ninth layer of saccharine hell, a quite repellant exercise in materialism from someone whose main artistic consideration hitherto had been how to make two movies for the price of one (and not tell his actors –  hence “the Salkind Clause”) I suspect the only way Santa Claus: The Movie might have worked would have been as a Muppets outing, self-mocking of its dreadful indulgences as it went along.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

I hate natural causes!

Body Bags (1993) (SPOILERS) I’m not surprised Showtime didn’t pick this up for an anthology series. Perhaps, if John Carpenter had made Coming Home in a Body Bag (the popular Nam movie series referenced in the same year’s True Romance ), we’d have something to talk about. Tho’ probably not, if Carpenter had retained his by this point firmly glued to his side DP Gary Kibbe, ensuring the proceedings are as flat, lifeless and unatmospheric as possible. Carpenter directed two of the segments here, Tobe Hooper the other one. It may sound absurd, given the quality of Hooper’s career, but by this point, even he was calling the shots better than Carpenter.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

I’m just glad Will Smith isn’t alive to see this.

The Tomorrow War (2021) (SPOILERS). Not so much tomorrow as yesterday. There’s a strong sense of déjà vu watching The Tomorrow War , so doggedly derivative is it of every time-travel/alien war/apocalyptic sci-fi movie of the past forty years. Not helping it stand out from the pack are doughy lead Chris Pratt, damned to look forever on the beefy side no matter how ripped he is and lacking the chops or gravitas for straight roles, and debut live-action director Chris McKay, who manages to deliver the goods in a serviceably anonymous fashion.

Why don't we go on a picnic, up the hill?

Invaders from Mars (1986) (SPOILERS) One can wax thematical over the number of remakes of ’50s movies in the ’80s – and ’50s SF movies in particular – and of how they represent ever-present Cold War and nuclear threats, and steadily increasing social and familial paranoias and disintegrating values. Really, though, it’s mostly down to the nostalgia of filmmakers for whom such pictures were formative influences (and studios hoping to make an easy buck on a library property). Tobe Hooper’s version of nostalgia, however, is not so readily discernible as a John Carpenter or a David Cronenberg (not that Cronenberg could foment such vibes, any more than a trip to the dental hygienist). Because his directorial qualities are not so readily discernible. Tobe Hooper movies tend to be a bit shit. Which makes it unsurprising that Invaders from Mars is a bit shit.

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

Hey, my friend smells amazing!

Luca (2021) (SPOILERS) Pixar’s first gay movie ? Not according to director Enrico Cassarosa (“ This was really never in our plans. This was really about their friendship in that kind of pre-puberty world ”). Perhaps it should have been, as that might have been an excuse – any excuse is worth a shot at this point – for Luca being so insipid and bereft of spark. You know, the way Soul could at least claim it was about something deep and meaningful as a defence for being entirely lacking as a distinctive and creatively engaging story in its own right.

As in the hokey kids’ show guy?

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t think Mr Rogers could have been any creepier had Kevin Spacey played him. It isn’t just the baggage Tom Hanks brings, and whether or not he’s the adrenochrome lord to the stars and/or in Guantanamo and/or dead and/or going to make a perfectly dreadful Colonel Tom Parker and an equally awful Geppetto; it’s that his performance is so constipated and mannered an imitation of Mr Rogers’ genuineness that this “biopic” takes on a fundamentally sinister turn. His every scene with a youngster isn’t so much exuding benevolent empathy as suggestive of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ’s Child Catcher let loose in a TV studio (and again, this bodes well for Geppetto). Extend that to A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood ’s conceit, that Mr Rogers’ life is one of a sociopathic shrink milking angst from his victims/patients in order to get some kind of satiating high – a bit like a rejuvenating drug, on that score – and you have a deeply unsettli